Canada unhappy with WJC silver

Updated: January 6, 2004, 12:41 AM ET
By E.J. Hradek | ESPN The Magazine

HELSINKI, Finland -- For most countries that compete in the annual World Junior Championship, a silver streak would be good news. For Canada, a hockey power with a rich history of excellence, a silver streak brings nothing but disappointment.

For the third straight winter, Team Canada squandered a third-period lead in a gold medal game and was forced to settle for the silver medal at the WJC.

In 2002 and 2003, Russia found a way to overcome Canadian leads to win the gold. This time, buoyed by some strange bounces, a pesky, well-coached Team USA rebounded from a two-goal deficit for a stunning 4-3 win.

"It's really tough," said Team Canada goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, the first overall pick (Penguins) in the 2003 draft. "We were so close last year; then to come back this year with a really great team, I thought we had a great shot at it. It's just tough."

North of the border, Fleury likely will get some heat for his uneven performance in the gold medal game. Critics will say he should have stopped Dan Fritsche's first-period wraparound, which tied the score 1-1. Others will point to Ryan Kesler's tying goal. Kesler's in-close shot deflected off Fleury's stick. The puck then flipped up over Fleury's shoulder and rolled into the net behind him.

But most will point to the game-winning goal, when Fleury tried to clear a stray puck past a couple of onrushing players.

"I saw the players were racing," Fleury said. "I just tried to shoot it toward the boards & "

Fleury's clearing attempt deflected off Canadian defenseman Braydon Coburn and trickled back into the net.

Canadian head coach Mario Durocher thought his club was a victim of bad luck more than bad goaltending.

"The line between winning and losing is very thin," Durocher said. "It's one game, not four out of seven. There were a couple of lucky goals. At the end, that made the difference."

Durocher said the loss also had more to do with his team's opponent.

"They had a pretty good team on the other side," said Durocher, who was an assistant coach for Canada last year. "We had problems establishing our forecheck because they have some fast skaters."

For Fleury, however, this tournament put him in a win-or-bust situation. Last winter, he was the unknown commodity who rose to lead an average Canada team to the gold medal game. His WJC performance moved him to the top of his draft class.

This year, he came to the tournament as a high-profile professional, complete with NHL experience. And, standing behind a much stronger team, Fleury would go virtually unchallenged in Canada's first five games.

Still, despite the heartbreaking loss, Fleury believes the tournament was a good experience for him.

"The team was together for about month," Fleury said. "And we had a great time together."

Although Fleury won't get a third shot at WJC gold, Canada could have 13 returning players (Dion Phaneuf, Brent Seabrook, Shawn Belle, Ryan Getzlaf, Brent Burns, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Anthony Stewart, Nigel Dawes, Sidney Crosby, Jeremy Colliton, Stephen Dixon and Coburn) for next year's tournament, which will take place in North Dakota. And, it there's a lockout, the Canadians could add Bruins right wing Patrice Bergeron and Panthers center/right wing Nathan Horton.

With that kind of lineup, there's a good chance Canada's silver streak will turn golden next year.

E.J. Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send E.J. a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

E.J. Hradek

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.

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